DSLR vs. Mirrorless

Not sure why I haven’t written about this before. Maybe it was because the mirrorless market wasn’t yet mature or maybe it was because I wasn’t yet mature – at least in terms of my knowledge of the subject. Well, today is the day, and we’ll do a deep dive into one vs. the other.

One of the most in-depth descriptions I’ve found on this topic comes from TechRadar. 12 whole pages, albeit with pages peppered with ads that take up much of the visible space (ok, I have ads too, but limit them). And yet, despite 12 pages, I’m not sure they got it all.

Out of the gate, the main advantage of mirrorless over traditional DSLR’s is size and weight. Similarly capability DSLR cameras are much larger and much heavier than their mirrorless counterparts, whether at entry level or professional. The number of photographers I now hear making this a prime consideration is very interesting. Many of my photography friends are older, and market demographics are pointing that way too. We either need to reduce the total number of items we carry, or make those items smaller and lighter.

The above article does mention the following points for mirrorless offerings…

  • The presence of a mirror – duh! DSLR’s have one set of processors and controls for the sensor and a totally separate set of processors and controls for the viewfinder, which includes a mirror that flaps up and down when shooting. Apart from the mechanical motion of the mirror, this design also means that the autofocus system is totally separate from and not reliant on the sensor in DSLR’s. In mirrorless cameras, the sensor is at the heart of all major functions, including autofocus, making the acquisition and capture of results faster and more accurate.
  • Size and weight of the camera body, as already mentioned – again, duh! With no extra system to manage, the physical size and physical weight of a mirrorless body is substantially less than its DSLR counterpart.
  • Much faster burst rate shooting in mirrorless cameras vs. DSLR’s. DSLR’s were often limited to a burst rate of 10-12 fps (frames per second) because of the mechanical movement of the mirror. Today’s modern mirrorless cameras have been advertised with up to 30 fps with mechanical shutter and 60 with electronic. Who would need either is a different debate.
  • New lens choices, since the mirror is no longer in the way. This has worked both positively and negatively. Higher end lenses can be smaller and lighter, but the short flange distance in mirrorless means some compromises in terms of adding accessories such as 1.4x or 2x extenders. And there is not yet a full range of mirrorless glass for the late camera entries to the market – Canon and Nikon.
  • Electronic viewfinders in mirrorless mean that you not only see what the sensor sees, but you also see how the sensor sees it, with any selected settings applied. This is exposure simulation mode and I absolutely love it.
  • Fast, accurate autofocus systems, with moving-subject tracking that is unmatched in the DSLR domain. As mentioned, this is because the AF system is linked directly to the sensor. So if you primary shoot moving subjects, today’s mirrorless cameras offer unrivaled performance.
  • Higher resolution video capture, again with excellent autofocus.
  • Flippy screens are much more common in mirrorless than in DSLR’s. My sore back welcomes this.
  • Shorter battery life in mirrorless on a shot by shot basis than in DSLR’s. More on that below.
  • As a newer technology, mirrorless cameras are higher in price than comparable DSLR’s. This is most true for entry-level equipment, and strangely rapidly disappears for prosumer and pro equipment.

One element not mentioned in the above piece is the customizability of the mirrorless lines. I can configure almost each button and dial on my mirrorless camera to do what I want. I can eliminate shooting options I don’t use. And I can display important (and remove unimportant) shooting information right in the viewfinder around all four sides of the field of view or on the back LCD, and also touch the LCD to adjust any of those items. In essence, I have a pilot’s “heads-up display”, long proven to help the pilot make quicker and better decisions. While some of that functionality exists in the DSLR lines, particularly in later models, you can’t customize what is presented. You can only turn it on and off.

The true preview image in mirrorless is a gamechanger for me. Mirrorless cameras can apply all the selected settings to the viewfinder and LCD displays prior to shooting and give a real view of what the image will look like once taken. With DSLRs, the preview image is really a “post-view”, showing you a result after the image is taken. And having a live histogram in my mirrorless field of view right on the shooting screen before I press the shutter is phenomenal. Apparently this is available in some DSLRs, but not in any I have previously used.

Whether coincidence or not, in-body image stabilization (IBIS) also appeared on the scene with the advent of mirrorless cameras. This is a technology where the sensor floats and is controlled by a series of accelerometers and gyroscopes to provide stability in up to 5 axes: horizontal and vertical, pitch, roll and yaw. All of the higher end (and many of the lower end) mirrorless offerings now include IBIS. In fact, I only found one brand/model of DSLR that includes it: the Pentax K-1. Drop a comment below if you know of others. In combination with lens stabilization, makers report 8 stops or more of image correction. My arthritic, geriatric hands welcome it.

The quality of the displays has been a sore point since the early days of mirrorless. Either the displays were too low resolution to be useful, or they flickered and/or blacked out when shooting. I’m happy to report that these seem to be non-issues now, and the display resolutions are one of the things that attracted me to mirrorless. Instead of an optical display that depends on the quality of my eyesight, I now have a digital display in both viewfinder and LCD that allows my diminished natural vision to clearly see details that would be otherwise be lost. I can essentially watch high-definition TV in my viewfinder.

One other simple difference is noise – not digital noise – actual audible noise. The noise of a flapping mirror and shutter is often very loud in some DSLR models. In most modern mirrorless cameras, you can turn off the mechanical shutter, and go fully electronic, resulting in completely silent shooting. At least one brand (Nikon) has removed the mechanical shutter completely in its top mirrorless offering.

All of this capability does require more battery power. That is one of the main drawbacks of mirrorless. Although improving everyday, the general rule is that mirrorless offers about 50% less shooting time over traditional DSLR’s per battery. Sometimes it’s 75%, depending on what shooting mode is being used and whether both viewfinder and LCD displays are active. So I carry a lot of batteries. That said, I can still get through an entire day of shooting for me with 2 batteries. I do that by shutting off the camera each time I change locations or setups. Many mirrorless bodies also now offer USB charging, something not seen with DSLR’s. You can charge on the go.

So there you have it. Not sure anyone can yet settle the debate on which is better. The major brands are still releasing the first generation of their mirrorless lineups in some cases, and Covid has delayed that significantly. And because cameras in general are becoming more and more like computers, the mirrorless market is extremely sensitive to chip supply chain disruptions.

So you can expect to see both DSLR and mirrorless offerings in the stores, although both Canon and Nikon have stated that no new DSLR models will be introduced. They will supply existing models for as long as there is demand. Lenses will similarly continue to be produced in both styles for now, with mirrorless bodies able to use both. Lenses will drop off on their expected obsolescence dates.

So if you are looking for a new camera, consider both choices and the pros and cons of each for your particular situation. Perhaps consider renting each system for a weekend and see what works best for you.